Saelon's Studio


Handcoloring (also known as handtinting) has been around for nearly as long as photography itself, and first gained its popularity as the ONLY way to make a color photograph. Now, with color photography so firmly entrenched, many people find it very odd that anyone still handcolors photographs. From time to time I'm asked, "Why go to all that trouble when you could just shoot color film?" Well, there really are quite a few reasons to handcolor, and quite a few differences between a handcolored photograph and a color photograph. Black and white films and papers allow us an immense amount of control over the image relative to what we can get with color films. With black and white films we can use a number of different methods to change the relative values in an image, such as using color filters to lighten some parts and darken others, depending on their color, or using the zone system to increase or decrease the tonal range of an image. We can choose from a huge variety of different papers, all with somewhat different characteristics, and we can nudge the image along in different directions with a number of different printing techniques. Processing black & white films and papers tends to be much simpler and to use somewhat less hazardous chemicals than color processes require. Black and white films and papers both tend to hold up better over time than most color films and papers. Most color prints will fade significantly within 10 years but a well-processed black & white print should last 100 or more. These are all the reasons I fell in love with black & white photography. My intentions when painting on a photograph are to imbue it with more of the emotional mood that I personally associate with the image. I'm not trying to make it look like a color photograph. I may or may not be using the colors that one would see if it was a color photograph, but I am using the colors that I FEEL with the image.

The Materials:
My methods for handcoloring are definitely not the only way to do it; they are just the way I do it myself, at this particular point in time. I start with black & white prints on fiber-based paper with a matte finish. Most of my handcoloring has been done on Agfa Multicontrast Classic 118 paper, but unfortunately this paper is no longer being manufactured. If you wish to try another paper, just be sure is is both fiber-based and matte-finish. Glossy papers and RC papers won't work for me. I print each image with the handcoloring process in mind. This often means I will print slightly lighter and slightly higher contrast than I would for a straight black & white print. But not always, it does depend on the image and what I want to do with it. A few rules to keep in mind: the color you see on a painted photograph depends in large part on the light that is reflected off the white paper beneath the image. Color applied over a pure black will not be visible as color unless you are mixing white pigment in along with the color pigment - there must be something for the light to reflect off, and pure black will absorb rather than reflect light. On the other hand, most images work best with some pure black in them. Some artists prefer painting on sepia-toned prints; I very rarely sepia-tone mine. Do be sure to leave some border around the image when printing. It's nice to have an edge that you can use to tape the print down while you are working on it. and it's also very important to keep the oil paints from bleeding UNDER the emulsion, as they will eventually destroy the paper if they reach it. The emulsion protects the paper, but at the edges it is vulnerable. I leave a one-inch border on all sides.

My paints are all oils, and are transparent, with a high pigment concentration and very little filler. I find Marshall's Photo Oils to be the easiest and most reliable for beginners. Old Holland Classic Oils are my favorite - though they are pretty expensive (best to find them at a discounted price, such as at I've also had some success with some colors from Daniel Smith's Autograph Series oils, and use Grumbacher's Transparentizing Gel to further thin colors (when desired) in either of these types of paints. It's useful to have something firm to hold the print. I've made some holders with clean smooth pieces of 4-ply matboard, cut the same size as the print I will be working on, and with paper corners attached for holding the print in place. It saves clean-up time if you put a high-quality easy-release tape down over all the borders of the image. When you pull it up at the end the borders will be clean and neat with no extra effort from you. Try drafting tape (not masking tape - it may tear the emulsion when you remove it) or one of the white easy-release tapes. A paper palette will make the mixing of colors easier. I rarely use brushes with my painting process; the paint is generally applied with handmade cotton q-tips. I use the large boxes of Johnsons & Johnsons rolled cotton, and small bamboo BBQ skewers to make them. Put the point of a skewer into the cotton and roll it up to the size and shape you desire. This gives you the ability to make q-tips in a broad range of sizes. If you use the pre-made ones you will not only pay more, but you will be very frustrated when trying to paint tiny details. The paint is applied with q-tips and rubbed in, blended and rubbed off with small pieces of cotton torn off the roll. The paint can be removed completely from the print (before it dries) with a kneadable eraser. This is useful both for correcting mistakes and also for bringing out highlights in the image.

The Methods:
Mix your colors on the paper palette before applying them. I usually try to mix a few slight variations of a color for each thing in the image, to carry the natural effects of highlight and shadow on each color. Generally lighter colors are mixed up by adding transparentizing gel to the paints, effectively thinning the pigment. White has a different effect - it is the most opaque of the paints. Most of my handcoloring is done in a transparent method so the detail and texture of the photograph shows through the color. Occasionally I prefer to obscure all that by painting an area in with opaque paints - this is where the white paint should be mixed in with your colors. In extreme cases you may want to use a brush to apply the opaque paints - this will allow you to apply them in a thicker layer and increase the opacity even more. Choosing which area of the photograph to start with depends on the image. In general I prefer to work with the largest areas first and work my way down to the smallest details at the end. I often break this rule when painting nudes however, as I find I can get to an agreeable color composition more easily if I paint in the flesh tones first and then work on the others. I lay all the colors down on a particular area of the image, then blend them carefully with small pieces of cotton. Think about the direction you need to rub - it's not random, it has to go with the lines and direction inherent in what you are coloring. Be especially careful about the direction you rub when working next to a finished area - it's easy to mess it up anytime while the paint is still wet. If you haven't thrown away the paint you mixed up for that part you can usually correct any messes. Use more blues in the shadowed areas; use more yellows where sunlight is hitting something. Rub a little extra paint off to create lighter areas where you want the image to come forward and the darker areas will retreat a bit - this will help give a three-dimensional reality to what you are painting. Use the kneaded eraser to completely remove the paint for the whites of the eyes, for teeth, for all sorts of small highlights.

Your manual dexterity will improve with practice, and your eye for color will also improve. You'll soon find that you are paying much more attention to all the colors of the real world than you ever did before, and it's an enriching experience. I highly recommend taking workshops in handcoloring - you'll pick up lots of new tricks, be exposed to other people's different methods, and be able to see first-hand some of the different solutions to mixing colors. I learned most of my skills from workshops with Ted Orland and David Bayles at UC Santa Cruz -Extension Services. I sometimes teach handcoloring workshops at St. Mary's Art Center in Virginia City, Nevada.


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